Home » HERITAGE » Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758)


Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758)


Jonathan Edwards

1703 — 1758

Philosopher, theologian, pastor, evangelist, psychologist, naturalist: Jonathan Edwards was all of these at once, and all of these superbly. A philosopher without peer to this day in America, he was the only philosopher of note until the 20th century. The best theologian to appear in the U.S.A., he missed living during the richest era of new-world Puritan erudition, emerging only in the dying days of the movement. Expected to voice its death-rattle, he paradoxically thundered like a cataract into which there poured the streams of fathomless spirituality and measureless intellect.

Yet Edwards’s own congregation would eventually vote 200 to 20 to dismiss him. Unemployed for six months, and with seven children to feed (eventually there were 12), he was exiled to a mission outpost consisting of 12 caucasian families and 250 aboriginal. Unquestionably isolated academically and deprived culturally, he managed in this seemingly inhospitable environment to produce scholarly works that have made him America’s intellectual showpiece.

It is Edwards’s sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, that so many have fastened on as the excuse for disregarding him as the conscienceless exploiter of people’s emotional vulnerabilities. Or rather it has to be the title of the sermon, since virtually none of those who disdain him as mean-spirited and heartless have even bothered to read the sermon! Neither do they know that so far from manipulating the heart-strings of his hearers with rhetorical trickery, he read the sermon word-for-word, hunched over the lectern, rarely lifting his head to look at the congregation — and all of this in a drone-dull monotone guaranteed to anaesthetize the most watchful. The result? New Englanders convulsed as the Spirit convicted them of their sinnership and their precariousness before the Holy God whose judgement cannot be deflected. (Sinners, it should be noted, is only one of 1200 manuscript sermons by Edwards housed in the library of Yale University.)

One of 12 children, the precocious youngster began learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew at age five. By 13 he was a student at Yale, a graduate at 17. After two years of schoolteaching he moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, as assistant pastor to his grandfather.

The spiritual tepidness of the congregation there dismayed him. Driven back to the resources acquired during his theological training, Edwards preached repeatedly on the Reformation pillar of “justification by faith”: sinners are set right with God as they gratefully embrace in faith the provision God’s grace has wrought for them in the mercy of the cross. His expositions appeared hopelessly ineffective in the face of the desiccated hearts of his hearers — except that their hearts were tinder-dry and could therefore be ignited! A spiritual quickening smouldered in the congregation for several months and then flickered into flame. Neighbouring congregations came alive as the Spirit thawed the frigid and illumined the shuttered. Suddenly the quiet conversions of individuals and the gradual renewal of congregations exploded into the “Great Awakening” of 1740. No single metaphor seemed sufficient to describe it. Avalanche, landslide, tidal wave, prairie- fire: no expression, however suggestive of immensity, relentlessness and power does justice to the development.

Needless to say, sceptics appeared instantly. Was the Great Awakening a new-world, latter-day “Pentecost”, or was the “prairie-fire” the uncontrollable destruction of wildfire? Was the revival at best a pretext for expressing psychological aberration and at worst a danger bordering on the demonic? Wisdom rivalling Solomon’s was plainly needed. Edwards’s Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections appeared in 1746, unsurpassed in helping to distinguish between emotional boilovers devoid of light and genuine Spirit-penetrations of the heart that caused the convicted to cry out, groan or wail. Edwards knew that those newly horrified at their quandary before the uncompromisingly Holy could very well shriek or faint, even as he knew that no amount of shrieking or fainting of themselves proved that the Spirit of God had cut to the heart. How to distinguish between the hallucinations of the hysterical and the torment of the heart-rent? Here Edwards showed himself a master of discernment: the authentic must be distinguished from the counterfeit, even as the Spirit must no more be quenched than emotional “geysering” be encouraged.

By 1750 a non-revival element in Edwards’s congregation had become ascendant, and the controversy that was to terminate his pastorate in Northampton could not be stifled. The “Halfway Covenant” had been a social expedient granting church-membership (together with the right to have their children baptized) to those who neither professed faith in Jesus Christ nor acknowledged his claim upon their obedience. These people wanted the social and business advantages of institutional membership while disdaining the self-abandonment of discipleship. Edwards rightly insisted that scripture knew nothing of a “halfway” following of the Master. One was to be a church-member only on the grounds of one’s unqualified submission to Jesus Christ and one’s unreserved aspiration to godliness. When unruly voices clamoured for quick dismissal, Edwards declined to speak in his own defense, simply asking that he be judged by those who had heard him preach on the matter or who were acquainted with his writing. He was refused. The congregation, having been graced for years with the ministry of the nation’s spiritual giant, mysteriously displayed its spiritual puniness as it fired its pastor.

After several years in outpost work he was asked to serve as president of Princeton University. By this time smallpox was raging up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Some pastors railed against vaccination while others insisted on it. Edwards said nothing, content to “speak” by having himself vaccinated. The mini-dose of the disease proved too much for the man rendered frail through several years’ hardship. He died one month after assuming the presidency.

The architect of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God knew something his detractors have never learned: it is far worse to be sinners in the hands of angry humans, as King David of old knew when he cried, “I am in great distress; let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” (1 Chronicles 21:13) God’s anger subserves his mercy, while humankind’s anger subserves its cruelty.

The man whose sole recreation had been horseback-riding had consistently testified to that horse and rider who “went out conquering and to conquer.” (Revelation 6:2)

Victor Shepherd